My twentysomething social life was one long drink special. Margaritas with a crust of salt on the rim, a frosty pint spilling foam, and the always regrettable “Who wants shots?”
I had always assumed my drinking would calm down after I graduated college. Instead, it ramped up. The bars opened their pearly gates to me, and I sank into those velvet banquettes and ripped vinyl couches.
I sometimes wondered if I had a problem. I had a tendency to black out — to forget episodes from a night of drinking, even though I remained surprisingly functional (well, “functional” may not be the word for someone pouring beer on her own head) — and every pamphlet, doctor’s questionnaire, and glossy magazine quiz I took listed blackouts as a risk factor for alcoholism.
The problem with checklists for alcoholism is that they look a lot like, well, being young. Do you ever drink to get drunk? Have you ever gone to work with a hangover? They might as well ask: Have you ever been 25?
Over the following decade, I kept wondering about my drinking, as my bar bills grew steeper — Patron instead of Jose Cuervo — and my taste more refined. I continued to build the case that my drinking was normal, totally normal. See that guy over there? He’s at the bar every night. At least I’m not that bad. I had a good job, I never crashed my car. And yet, I was stuck.
There is a saying among former drunks: “At first drinking is fun, then fun with problems, then just problems.” By my mid-thirties, I had found myself in the “problems” portion of the evening.
I quit drinking at the age of 35. How did I know it was time? I arrived at a preponderance of the evidence. Some people do have a lightning flash of recognition, but for me it was more of a slow dawning. I had to sift through data, gather bits of knowledge. I took health surveys online. I talked to my therapist. I read the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous (the bible of AA) and many alcoholism memoirs: Drinking: A Love Story, and Lit, and Smashed, and A Drinking Life, and The Tender Bar, all of which offer compelling and varied tales of people who put the cap back on the bottle for good. Listening to other people’s stories may have helped me more than anything else. The more I heard other people’s struggles, the more I found words for my own.
The following is a list of aha moments for me. It is not an authoritative list; it’s simply one person’s experience. I can’t stress this enough. What alcoholism looked like for me may not be what it looked like for someone else, and how I define alcoholism may be different from a medical professional (they use the phrase “alcohol use disorder”) or another problem drinker. I really can’t tell anyone else if they have a drinking problem, or if they’re an alcoholic, or if they need to quit. These are complicated questions you must answer on your own. What I can do is show you how I answered these questions for myself.
Does alcohol interfere with your work?
I spent my early career at alternative newsweeklies, where beer was sometimes kept in the fridge, and anyone walking in with sunglasses and a hangover got a high-five. You see this spirit at many companies with lots of employees in their twenties: Get the work done, and we don’t ask questions.
For a long time, I was getting the work done, which is probably why none of my bosses ever confronted me about my drinking. By my thirties, I had developed some red-flag habits. In the evenings, I kept a bottle of wine by my side. I brought my laptop to the bar, and drank pints while I wrote stories. I had an insane workload, and the drinking was partly an attempt to make it tolerable. I told myself I deserved the booze, and the work didn’t suffer. But then it did.
One morning, I came into my Manhattan office at 10:30 a.m., having stayed up drinking till 4, and my deeply beloved assistant editor Gchatted me at my desk: “You might want to chew some gum.” He could still smell the booze on me, because I was still drunk. Another morning, I called in sick because my hangover was so toxic I couldn’t possibly make it without vomiting on myself in a cab or a subway. My friends at work emailed me condolences, and I felt like such a loser.
I stopped being able to write. I had panic attacks when I woke at 5 a.m. If you’ve ever had a high-pressure position, then you know these can also be part of your job description. But the data points start to converge: Drinking WAS interfering with my ability to work. I was not functioning so well anymore, and it’s debatable if I ever really had been.
Do you lie about your drinking?
Like lying about your weight, lying about your drinking is something many people who are not alcoholics do. “How many did you have, honey?” “Oh, two.” They do it for benign reasons (they forgot) and slightly sketchy ones (to avoid an argument, to maintain a perfect image). But how often are you lying? And why?
I engaged in the typical “downscaling of the number” when necessary, but I did other things. In New York, I would go out to dinner with friends, share a bottle of wine or two, and then stop by the bodega on my way home to buy a six-pack of beer. I did this because even after a night of drinking, I needed more. I would sometimes find myself dropping casual lies to the guy who worked at the bodega about how I was just hanging out with a friend at home. Why was I lying to the guy at the bodega?
Because I knew what I was doing was wrong.
I lived alone at the time, and could drink as I wished without anyone’s commentary, but I could feel the watchful eyes of those bodega guys, who probably saw my wine-stained mouth and my droopy eyes. Mostly I tried to get out of there without any interaction at all.
Other humans can be a valuable metric for our own behavior. Are you afraid of getting caught at something? It might be because what you’re doing is wrong.
Have you had regrettable drunken sexual encounters?
Once again, these can be a part of youthful recklessness. But they can also take a chunk from your soul. The first few times I had a drunken one-night stand, I was excited. Even in my thirties, I retained the idea that such a collision was adventurous, a measure of my desirability and bravado. I didn’t regret those encounters, in other words, and if society says I should, who cares?
But the scenarios grew more dangerous, more cringe-inducing. I came out of a blackout in a Paris hotel room in the middle of having sex with a stranger. They were not a measure of my bravado so much as my carelessness, a misplaced need for connection. This is one to watch, whatever your gender. Alcohol and consent can make very complicated bedfellows.
Do you constantly use the phrase “I need a drink”?
I know everyone says it. I’ve seen Facebook. It can be another way of saying “I’ve had a long day.” Or “I’m going to lose my mind.” What I found, though, was that I needed a drink in just about EVERY situation. When I was happy, when I was sad, when I was bored, when I was lonely. When I was sitting on the futon, watching Flavor of Love. (Maybe “drunk” is the only acceptable way to watch Flavor of Love.) I avoided crowded bars where I didn’t have easy access to a cocktail waitress or a friendly bartender quick with the buybacks. No hot spots for me. And when my friends said, “I need a drink,” they often went to the bar for a couple hours and headed home. I left the tab open all night.
When you start drinking, do you find it hard to stop?
For years, I would go to parties swearing I would have one drink, and then I would come out of the party having had eight. What the hell just happened? I was a person of my word, a person of (some) discipline. Well, for one thing, alcohol is a disinhibiting agent that lowers your judgment; everyone finds it hard to keep their promises after drinking. But more crucially: My body responded to alcohol differently than other people.
I have friends who pass out after two drinks. Friends who have a glass of wine, and then say they are done. (“Done”? What is “done”?) I never understood that. Alcohol was like cocaine to me, probably one reason I never bothered to try cocaine. Booze lit a match inside me; I was often up all night.
The first time I read the phrase “the phenomenon of craving” was in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. As soon as I saw the words, I knew exactly what they described, a sensation I had experienced for years. When I drank, I needed more. If I was drinking, and someone interrupted the drinking — say, the alcohol ran out at the party, or we had to change locations — I experienced the itchy dislocation I imagine daily smokers get when they need a fix. I was the person at your party scouring your liquor cabinet after the keg had floated. I was the person who hammered the wine cork into the wine bottle because nobody had a corkscrew.
“I can’t stop” is one of the key distinctions between a “drinking problem” and “alcoholism,” to my mind. Other people have their definitions, but this is mine. When you have a “drinking problem,” you have some hope of walking it back, of moderating the behavior. With alcoholism, you are done. You cannot moderate, because one drink will never be enough. That’s why your best line of defense is to never start drinking again — which is exactly what no drinker ever wants to hear.
Are you often coming up with new ways to control your drinking?
A short list of things I have done in order to manage my own drinking: I stopped drinking brown liquor; I drank only on weekends; I stopped drinking red wine and only drank white; I never drank before 5 p.m.; I drank a glass of water between every cocktail; I stopped taking shots. None of this worked. Or, rather, it worked for a week, or a year, and then I was back in the muck again.
One night, desperate for someone to save me, I called a woman who had some experience with this stuff. “But I just don’t KNOW if I’m an alcoholic,” I said to her. There was no blood test. No home kit. It was on me.
She told me to try some controlled drinking. I liked the sound of that. The “controlled drinking” experiment — for six months, you drink between one and three drinks, no excuses — is actually a marvelously practical way to test to see if you have a problem. I failed in three days, tried it again and failed it in a week. Then I stopped taking the test. Drinking only two or three beers a night felt like holding my breath underwater. I hated it. I needed more. I didn’t quit immediately after that. I still had a year of mourning and clinging to do. But it nudged me further toward defeat. It was becoming clear I couldn’t lick this thing by myself.
What is your family history?
There is a common saying in addiction literature: “Genetics loads the gun, and environment pulls the trigger.” My heritage is a mix of two strong drinking cultures, Irish and Finnish. (If you don’t know whether your genetic heritage tilts toward boozehoundery, take a look at this list of the world’s heaviest-drinking countries, and my apologies to those from Eastern Europe.) My parents never drank much when I was a kid, but my family trees have quite a few empty bottles underneath them. My genetic predisposition to drinking was great for me at first. I was the “girl who could hold her liquor” (though from 1 a.m. onward, I did have a tendency to spill it).
Ultimately, this was a target on my forehead. “The girl who can hold her liquor” and “the guy who parties the hardest” have a way of finding their way to metal fold-out chairs in fluorescent rooms.
Have friends confronted you about your drinking?
This was a big one for me. Until my friends started talking to me about my drinking, I had convinced myself we were all basically the same. This is how we all drink, right? Everyone thinks I’m funny when I’m drunk, right? No and no. I was lucky that instead of just cutting me off, like many people might have, a couple of my friends sat me down and told me they were worried about me. That was the phrase my friends often used: worried about you. They didn’t count my drinks, which would have incited me to argue. They didn’t even say, “You drink too much.” They said, “I’m scared something’s going to happen to you” and “I care about you.” At first, I was so angry. What the hell? They drank too. But they didn’t drink like I did. I wasn’t holding it together, and they did me the favor of telling me in gentle, loving, and honest ways.
Do you black out?
For decades, the medical community thought that blackouts were a sign you were headed straight into alcoholism. More recent research has suggested the link isn’t so direct. In a 2002 study at Duke, more than half of the drinkers had experienced a blackout. They are a common fixture in a college drinking environment defined by pregaming, shot contests, and drinking on an empty stomach (all risk factors for blackout).
So having one blackout, or two blackouts, does not necessarily indicate a problem. But continuing to have blackouts — having them over the years, or having them despite your efforts not to have them — suggests an inability to moderate, which is the crux of the whole issue. It suggests that you continue to put yourself in harm’s way, despite pretty shocking consequences. (It is incredibly freaky to have a blackout, and dangerous.) It suggests that you are consistently drinking yourself to a risky level of intoxication. Katy Perry songs are all fine and good, but let’s be clear on something: Blackouts are not funny, and they are not OK.
Are you spending an inordinate amount of time wondering if you have a drinking problem?
It’s healthy to occasionally question your consumption. But an obsession on the subject suggests less ambivalence and more denial. People who don’t have a problem rarely stay up reading everything on the internet about drinking. People who don’t have a problem rarely stay in their head for entire Sunday afternoons reading theories about addiction.
If you are that person, what can I tell you? Probably nothing you don’t already know. I told a friend I was writing this story and asked what she would have wanted to hear, back when she was trying to quit. “Oh, I didn’t ask anybody if I had a drinking problem,” she said. “I knew I did.”
By the end, I knew too. I just wanted a different answer. I wanted the answer to be “Here is this miracle pill.” Or “Hey, drink this raw vitamin juice.” Anything, ANYTHING but “stop drinking.” If you are a drinker, you want to drink. I didn’t need another survey. I didn’t need another medical professional. What I needed was to hear from someone on the other side who could assure me that life wouldn’t be over.
So let me assure you now. The answer is: Not even close.
Sarah Hepola’s memoir, Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, comes out June 23 from Grand Central. She is the personal essays editor at Salon.
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